Doctor Shelly Newman lives a quiet life in Cooper Valley as the only physical therapist in town. Her safe little world takes a turn, though, when she realizes the sweet notes being left for her are from a stalker.
The bright spots in her week, and also her most frustrating, are when she works with retired Master Sergeant Pete Dexler. He’s rude, he’s stubborn, but he has a softer, vulnerable side that attracts her. And he’s the only one she can turn to when her world crumbles around her and the stalker starts moving in for the kill.
“If you don’t stop pushing so damn hard, you’re going to reverse all the progress we’ve made over the last four months!”
Shelly Newman stood behind her stubborn patient, holding his wheelchair, wanting to ram it into the back of his knees so he’d sit his ass down. He gripped the parallel bars, forcing his feet to move one in front of the other, his face beet red and sweat soaking his gray T-shirt with Marine emblazoned across the front. The stubborn, mule-headed, pain-in-her-ass man drove her insane three times a week. And damn it if she didn’t feel his pain right along with him.
“Can you even hear me? Have you gone deaf in the last ten minutes? You need to stop. You’re pushing too hard, and you’re in pain.”
Through clenched teeth he ground out, “They can hear you in the next county, Doctor Newman. Now shut the hell up. I think I know my body.”
Shelly kicked the brakes on the wheelchair, ducked under the bar, and rounded in front of him. “That’s it, Sergeant Dexler. If you won’t listen to me, you can find yourself a new physical therapist. Now, sit down!” She set her hands on his shoulders, wanting so badly to shove him back into the chair but knowing that would only cause more damage—the one thing she was trying to avoid.
He narrowed those sexy baby blues on her, and fury radiated off him so strong she could smell it. “Master Sergeant Dexler, bitch,” he muttered under his breath. But he changed the position of his hands on the bars and slowly lowered himself into the chair.
“Now, did your momma teach you to talk like that?” she shot, not taking offense to the nasty insult. In her ten years working in physical therapy, she’d been called much worse than bitch. But Pete Dexler—Dex to his friends, of which she was only on very rare occasions—hadn’t gone so far as to call her names until today.
He lifted the front of his shirt and swiped it over his dripping face. His stomach muscles rippled, but he could use a good meal. He was too thin. She admired his determination, but if he didn’t take better care of himself, he’d never achieve his goal.
“Look, Dex,” she said, squatting down in front of his chair and putting her hands on his sweatpants-covered knees. She took a breath and chose her words carefully. “I don’t want to see you have another setback. When it hurts, you have to stop.”
“It didn’t hurt.”
God, he was a bad liar. She’d lambaste him if it weren’t for the flash of vulnerability she saw in his eyes a little too often. But that soft side didn’t last more than a moment, and he set his mouth in a hard line.
She sighed and stood up. “You make me insane. If all my patients were like you, I’d find a tall building and end it all.”
“Good luck with that. I’ll be sure to put a rose on your casket.”
“Oh, ow. You’re being a real bastard today, aren’t you?” She moved out from between the bars. “Get your ass over here and on the floor. Time for your stretches.”
He rolled his chair to the exercise mat, and she watched as he carefully lowered himself out of it and onto the floor. He did his best not to show it, but he winced a few times as he lay on his back and raised his hands over his head. She went down on the floor next to him, leaned over him, and slid her hands under his lower back. His muscles twitched from overuse and strain.
“Damn it, Dex,” she said on a sigh as she carefully massaged the muscles with her fingertips. “I don’t want to see you again until Friday. You have to rest these muscles.”
Without warning, he grabbed the back of her neck and pulled her down over him.
His mouth was against hers before she could think to shove away from him. The worst part though was that she didn’t shove away at all. When her mouth touched his, her brain went blank.
His lips were firm yet soft as they moved against hers. It was second nature to open slightly and meet him halfway. His tongue touched her bottom lip and pulled a soft moan from her as she felt that slight caress right down in her core.
That sound—her own sound of intense pleasure and need—made her finally push away from him. “Don’t you— What the hell—” She shoved to her feet and stepped away from him, her hands shaking and her tummy quivering. She clenched her teeth when he flashed a cocky grin she’d never seen before and wanted to swipe away with a slap.
“See, I’m fine,” he said. “I just proved it.”
“Finish your stretches on your own and get the hell out of here. One more stunt like that, and you will find yourself another therapist. Understand me, Mr. Dexler?”
That tiny flicker of vulnerability was there then gone. “Worse than any damn drill sergeant I ever had.” He rolled to his side and sat up, but he couldn’t hide the lines of pain around his mouth.
She turned on her heel and went into her office, refusing to give in to the childish act of slamming the door. So she shut it with a quiet click then leaned back against the metal, wishing it was colder since her body felt twenty degrees too warm. She’d fantasized about kissing him since he’d showed up in her office a few months ago, unable to walk and pissed off at the world. He was still angry, but at least he had a goal to work toward. If he’d just follow doctor’s orders—her orders—and not push so damn hard and hurt himself.
She moved to her chair behind her desk and sat down, closing her eyes and reliving that kiss. His big, callused hand behind her neck, the tangy saltiness of his lips from his workout. Placing her fingers over her lips, she now wished it had been just a little longer, because it could never happen again.
Oh, she knew it meant nothing to him; he’d just been trying to make a point. But it had been too long since she’d been out on a date, let alone had carnal knowledge of a sexy male body. And his body, even injured and not fully under his control, was prime USMC stud muffin. He worked out like a madman to stay in shape, even if he claimed he didn’t because he wasn’t supposed to except with her. His entire upper body was luscious enough that she’d had a hell of a lot of very inappropriate fantasies. She had no doubt in a few more months the rest of him would be up to par. She just prayed that when he realized he’d never run another marathon—that he might never walk without a cane—it wouldn’t kill him.
She sighed, sat up straight, and glanced through the window of her office into the physical therapy room. Dex was doing his stretches, so she turned to her In Box and lifted out the stack of paperwork to go through. She had an hour before her next patient—their little hospital in Cooper Valley, Wisconsin wasn’t a hub of activity—so she might as well get her insurance forms filled out.
When she held the stack of papers up to straighten the edges, an envelope fell out. Her stomach clenched. “Damn it,” she whispered. Not another one.
She opened the side desk drawer and pulled out a pair of latex surgical gloves. The envelope was the same as the nearly two-dozen others she’d received over the last couple of months. Ivory colored recycled paper. High quality with the brand name embossed on the flap. Only the contents changed. She pulled on the gloves and lifted her letter opener from the pencil caddy on the corner of her desk. She slit the top open and pulled out the folded stationery paper that matched the envelope.
Taking a deep breath, she unfolded it.
My dearest Shelly,
It was so nice seeing you again. You always make me smile, brighten my day, make me feel warm and safe inside. I loved the way you wore your hair today with it flowing over your shoulders, the sunlight catching the strands of gold intertwined with the auburn. I’ve always found your hair so sexy, even when you bind it up in a little knot.
I don’t have much time to write today, I have to get back to work.
See you soon,
Love you! XOXO
Shelly folded the paper and slipped it back into the envelope, trying hard not to let the creepy-crawly feeling take over. She’d been getting these letters every few days. This, though, was the first one to show up inside her office. She must have forgotten to lock the door last night. Or it had been left open today sometime. Yesterday was the only day in the last two weeks she’d worn her hair down, because she’d been in first-of-the-month staff meetings all day and had no patients to see and get sweaty with. Which meant he’d seen her yesterday. Where? How?
The question was… Who the hell is he?
The handwriting was definitely masculine, and he always talked about her, and how seeing her made his day. Every letter commented about her clothing, hairstyle, even the odd time she wore jewelry.
The envelopes were left in places she’d find them. On the seat of the stationary bicycle she used during her lunchtime workouts in the therapy room. Taped to her locker in the doctor’s lounge. Once, she’d gotten up from eating lunch in the cafeteria to refill her ice water, and when she’d returned, it was on her tray next to her fruit bowl. She’d looked around the cafeteria for the culprit, but no one stood out. She’d even asked the lady seated at the nearby table if she’d seen who left the envelope, but she hadn’t.
There were never threats, and the first couple had made her feel really good, like she had a secret admirer. But months later these things kept showing up unexpectedly, anonymously, and they gave her the heebie-jeebies.
She got up, went to the medical cabinet against the wall, and retrieved a hazardous materials plastic bag to put the letter in, then took off the surgical gloves, dumped them in the garbage, grabbed her keys off the corner of her desk, and went out into the physical therapy room.
“Are you planning to leave me down here all fucking day?” Dex demanded, his face red, his teeth clenched together.
Shit. She rushed to his side as she shoved her keys into her pocket, dropped the letter onto the mat, and moved behind Dex to help him up into his chair. “I’m sorry. I got sidetracked.”
He grunted as he used his already strained muscles to help her as she hoisted him up from under his arms. “You got kids, Doc?” he asked, his breathing a bit labored.
“Uh…” She frowned at him then picked up the hazmat bag. “No.”
“Good, because you leave a kid in timeout too long it’s called child abuse. Unfortunately, I can’t have you charged with anything.”
A sharp bark of laughter slipped out before she could stop it. She slapped her hand over her mouth. “Sorry,” she muttered, trying not to grin. Sometimes his sense of humor was just…just what she needed.
His lips twitched with the slightest hint of a smile, and the angry glare in his eyes changed to that warm softness.
“I’m really sorry,” she said again, still smiling. Then she remembered what had grabbed her attention and her humor fled. “Did you happen to see anyone come in and out of here today?”
His brow wrinkled as he looked up at her. “No. No one. What’s that?” he tipped his chin toward the bag in her hand.
Shaking her head, she forced another smile and tucked the bag against her thigh. “Nothing. You okay from here? I need to run downstairs.”
He shrugged. “I guess. You sure you’re okay? You look a little shaken.”
“My patient kissed me. Of course, I’m shaken.” It was the best she could do. She didn’t need to tell her patient her problems. It was none of his business.
He raised one eyebrow in an I-don’t-believe-you expression that she found just a little too attractive—and annoying.
“I’ll see you Friday. Not before. And take it easy on the home gym.”
“What home gym?” he asked with fake innocence so thin she could read a newspaper through it.
With a roll of her eyes, she went back to her office door and locked it. “Friday,” she said again as she headed for the hallway.
“Fine. Friday,” he said on a grumpy sigh.
She pushed the door open to the hallway. “And I’m serious, Dex. Don’t push it. You don’t want another setback.”
He waved one hand as he used the other to wheel toward the changing rooms where there were lockers and showers for the patients.
Shelly headed to the stairwell and skipped down the steps to the first floor and the emergency ward. Her friend—just about her only friend in this tight-knit little town—was working behind the ER reception desk.
“Hey, Celeste,” she said as she leaned against the chest-high counter and held the bag out to her. “Think you could make another delivery to that sexy husband of yours?” Celeste was married to one of the two local police detectives, and he also happened to be sexy as sin and a good decade younger than his wife. Celeste was one lucky woman.
Celeste made a face and took the bag containing the stalker letter. “Another? Didn’t you just get one two days ago?”
“Yep.” She shrugged. It was a real threat, or potentially could be. After her fifth letter when she’d started getting somewhat creeped out about them, she’d told Celeste. Her dear friend had immediately called her husband, who’d come right over to the hospital and looked at the letters. He’d arrived at the same conclusion: Shelly had a stalker.
So now she turned every letter over to him, and he went through the routine of looking for fingerprints. They’d found some consistent on every envelope but, much to her dismay, the prints weren’t in any searchable database Paul could access. Whoever owned those prints had no criminal record, and wasn’t a hospital, government, or even a state employee. But it was someone who could come and go from the hospital unnoticed because that was where all these envelopes kept showing up. And now he’d gotten into her office.
Celeste put the hazmat bag in the top drawer of the nurses’ desk. “Paul’s picking me up after work. My car’s in the shop. I’ll give it to him then. You okay?”
Shelly shrugged again. “I guess so. Part of me believes that since the tone of the letters hasn’t changed, and there’s no threat—I mean he’s not talking about killing a president for me or anything—that I shouldn’t get so weird about it all. Right?”
Celeste wrinkled her brow.
“Come on, girlfriend! Say, ‘You’re right, Shell. You’ll be fine and eventually he’ll stop.’”
Celeste chuckled. “You need anything, you have my cell number. And Paul’s. Don’t you ever hesitate to call.”
A little bit of sadness weighed on Shelly’s shoulders. She’d been in Cooper Valley for three years, and Celeste and Paul were absolutely the only people she would even consider calling if she were in need. “Thanks, Celee. That means more than you could ever know. I’ve got another patient coming in soon, so I better get back upstairs.”
“How bad was Mr. Marine today?”
Shelly curled her lip and growled, imitating a feral dog.
Celeste laughed. “Ah, but he’s so nice to look at!”
Shelly really wanted to confide about that kiss, but Celeste was a supervising nurse. Had about fifteen years in the hospital over Shelly’s mere three years there. And everyone everywhere, even in this little backwater town, knew that fraternization between doctor and patient was very much against the rules. Even if the doctor was only a physical therapist. So Shelly just smiled and tapped her finger on the countertop. “If only he had more than his looks to attract women.”
Celeste laughed again and shooed her away. “Get to work. Let’s do lunch this week. Friday?”
“Friday’s good.” Shelly headed back to the physical therapy room up one flight. Cooper Valley Memorial Hospital was only three floors with two wings. First floor was emergency, ICU, and ambulatory daycare. Second floor was the administrative offices and rehabilitation—physical, cardio and respiratory—along with the x-ray department. The third floor had a two-chair dialysis clinic, a small pediatric ward, two-room maternity ward, and the rest of the patient rooms. Anything else a patient needed, they probably had to be moved to a bigger facility in a bigger town, which wasn’t that far away, lucky for them.
She glanced at her watch as she reached the second floor door. She still had twenty minutes before her next patient, so she headed up to the third floor. The highlight of her day was to stop in at least once to the pediatric ward where they had three long-term patients. She grabbed three lollipops from the bowl on the counter, waved hello to Nurse Bethie Brighton who was on the phone, and went into the room the three children shared. “Hey, you guys,” she said, pasting on a smile and holding out the lollipops. “How’re my favorite kids doing?”
“Shelly!” Two of the three yelled.
She tossed the candies to Babs and Charlie as she passed the bed they sat on playing Candyland. Then she unwrapped the third one and approached the third bed. Her heart pinched, and she always had to fight tears when she saw little Neil. “Hey, sweetie,” she whispered as she lowered the safety bar on the bed and sat down next to him. “Want a treat?”
“Teet,” he said in a small voice.
She picked up the water cup from the bed table and dipped the lollipop in to moisten it, then held it to his lips so he could suck.
“Shelly?” Babs said. “You wanna play with us?”
“I can’t right now, sweets,” she answered. “But I’ll come back when I get off work, and I’ll play a game with you then. Or maybe read a book?”
“Yeah!” Babs and Charlie cheered.
The biological clock was ticking so loudly sometimes it deafened her. But then she came here, and saw these incredible little kids, and it helped. Maybe she didn’t have any of her own—might not ever if she couldn’t find a suitable mate before it was too late—but she had these three to visit with, play board games with, and hold when they got scared or lonely.
“Goo,” Neil said.
“Yeah, it’s good, isn’t it? Cherry. My favorite.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and smiled at him as she brushed his hair back from his forehead.